As we find ourselves neck deep in televised impeachment hearings, it feels particularly apropos to celebrate the memory of impressionist David Frye (David Shapiro, 1933-2011).
As Vaughn Meader was to JFK, Frye was to Richard Nixon (and before him, LBJ). Unlike Meader, the gifted Frye had an extraordinarily wide range. The Brooklyn native had started out with a repertoire of movie stars and other personalities. Like Frank Gorshin he had a much more interesting stable than the doleful Rich Little, who only trotted out facile, tired imitations of Cagney, Bogart, and Cary Grant. Frye nailed truly challenging voices, guys like Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Jack Palance, and Rod Steiger. But his popularity truly began to explode when he took on political figures. While he’d been popular on TV as early as the 1960s, his golden moment came with the advent of Nixon, and the release of his four albums: I Am the President (1969), Radio Free Nixon (1971), Richard Nixon Superstar (1971), and Richard Nixon: A Fantasy (1973). Almost by definition, as he worked on this material his writing became increasingly political, and it was insightful, original and funny, and that fueled his popularity. He seemed to have more in common with George Carlin and Richard Pryor than performers like Little. He took risks at a time when that was appreciated by audiences. For several years, he was booked on variety television constantly, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Kraft Music Hall, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, The Tonight Show, Dick Cavett, David Frost. etc etc.
Unfortunately, given the range of his talent, Frye became too closely identified with Nixon. As happened with Meader’s JFK routines, once the President was out of the pictures, his career suffered. His last national tv booking was in 1976. This despite the fact that Frye continued to work up topical materials as late as the Clinton administration. It fell to younger comedians, the SNL crowd and so forth, to tackle contemporary stuff in later decades, while Frye worked in places like Vegas where older audiences embraced him as a nostalgia act. Imagine having nostalgia for the Nixon administration. Actually, at the moment that’s not hard!